Friday, December 23, 2011

Going to The Outback

Uluru, the red rock, has been the screen saver on our computer for years.  It is a place that I have wanted to visit for a long time and it is happening!  Ayers Rock (Uluru) is located in Central Australia.  It is a 2.5 hour flight from Sydney and about 2800km away.  It would take about 30 hours to drive it so we were grateful for the flight option.  The flight was fine, no on board entertainment but I took the time to sort through a few hundred of our pictures taken while we have been traveling.

We arrived in Ayers Rock about noon and hired a rental car at the wee airport.  The Ayers Rock Resort where we had a cabin reserved was about 10min. away.  Ayers Rock Resort is the only development within several hundred kilometres in the Outback.  There is a grocery store, a post office, a couple of cafes and gift shops and three restaurants.  The resort also offers four levels of accommodations.  First would be the deluxe rooms of Desert Sails, then the more modest hotel style rooms.  At a different area of the resort  is the camp ground and cabins.  That is where we were.  The cabins we had was so great.  Much better than I had dared to hope!  It was small but had everything we needed.  One part was a 4 bunk bedroom, then a little kitchen complete with table and chairs, and another room with a double bed.  We were most grateful for the noisy air conditioner stuck in the wall!  (The temperature at mid day can exceed 40 degrees Celsius.  In the middle of the night it still feels warm.)   There was no bathroom but just like most Canadian camp grounds, there was a big bathroom with showers not far away.  The best feature was the outdoor pool.

Since it was the middle of a hot sunny day we decided to swim first and do a shortish hike later in the afternoon.  We decided to save Uluru for the next morning.  In the Outback it gets to hot during the day to hike so most people start hiking at sunrise (5:50am and finish by 11 am).  There is not alot of shade as most of the vegetation is scrub bushes, grasses and a few trees growing out of the red soil.
  Outfitted with hats, water and cameras we drove 45 minutes to Kata Tjuta rock formation.  Uluru is the most famous rock but the Kata Tjuta (also known as the Olgas) are just as impressive. 

First sightings of Kata Tjuta
Starting our hike

Hiking the gorge at Kata Tjuta
We hiked up and down the gorge passage.  When I think of the Outback from now on I will see red soil and red rock everywhere.  The soil has a high concentration of iron oxide, rust basically. 
Kata Tjuta Gorge hike

Zac and Serenna hiking Kata Tjuta
Beautiful Kata Tjuta

On our walk, Zac spotted two tiny lizards.  Like everything else they were red!
This little guy is about 4cm long
This wee guy is even smaller.  Those are my sunglasses he is near.

We drove a few kilometres away from Kata Tjuta at sunset to get a nice picture of the rock glowing in the sunshine. 
Sunset at Kata Tjuta

We had a simple dinner of spaghetti and sauce in our cosy cabin and turned in early.  The star watching from the Outback is awesome.  Unfortunately the only constellation that I recognise is Orion.  We cannot see the North star or the dippers from down here.  I think we were able to pick out the ‘Southern Cross’ – the 7 stars on the Australian flag.
First sightings of Uluru

Next morning we headed to Uluru to meet the ranger for a guided 1.5 hour tour around part of the rock.  Uluru (and Kata Tjuta) is a sacred area to the aboriginal peoples.  Our guide told us about some of their foods and traditions.  We saw cave drawings where the young would have been taught about hunting techniques, water holes, and spiritual stories would be passed down to the next generation. 
cave drawings aprox. 32000 years old!
The 'kitchen cave' used by Aboriginals years ago when Uluru was a gathering place.
Some places at Uluru are considers so sacred and important to the beliefs of the people that they ask visitors not to even take photographs of those areas. So I took a picture of the sign instead.

No photographs here please.

Many visitors want to climb Uluru for a sense of accomplishment.  The indigenous people do not climb Uluru.  It was and still is considered a meeting place for different Aboriginal tribes to come together for ceremonies and feasts.  They ask that visitor also do not climb as an act of respect for the culture, the natural environment, and their own personal safety.   The National Parks commission that jointly runs Uluru with the Indigenous council, also asks visitors to make an informed choice.  During the summer months of Dec., Jan., and Feb., the climb is actually closed all the time as it gets so hot at the top that there have been deaths and serious injury.  Despite all these reasons not to climb, some visitors just cannot resist.  Sadly, multiple people die every year at Uluru by falling or heat related illness.

Majestic Uluru

After our guided tour it was getting hot by 9:30am so we went to the Cultural Centre.  They had great displays and information about the aboriginal people.  There was also an art gallery where we spent a long time looking at original aboriginal paintings.  All four of us agreed on one painting for our home and Jason treated himself to another for his office.

By noon we needed  lunch, followed by many hours in the pool! 

Picnic lunch at the resort.  Notice the shade canopies everywhere.

For dinner that night we went to the Outback BBQ restaurant. The way it is run was a really cool idea. You go up to the cash and selected a piece of steak, chicken, hamburger, vegetarian burger, Kangaroo, fish, crocodile or Emu from the meat counter.  Then you take your own meat to one of the dozen barbies and BBQ it yourself!  Then you fill your plate with salads, corn and baked potatoes from the buffet.  The buffet even had apple crumble and vanilla custard for desert.  Considering our location the price was fair and became the best bargain in town when they told us kids eat for FREE!  We went back the next night too.  And no, we did not eat crocodile, emu or kangaroo.  Our intention was to have an early dinner and then head off to the sunset viewing area to watch the sun set over Uluru.  That plan had to be postponed as a storm front was moving in and there would be no glowing sunsets that night.
No sunset but very dramatic skies.

Because our sunset trip was called off, we did have one of those 'it is such a small world' experiences.   I noticed a guy and his young daughter unloading their car in the rain.  He had a MEC (Moutnain Equipment Co op) backback so we thought he must be Canadian.  Jason went to ask if he needed help unloading their car, but the guy seemed to be ignoring him.  Finally his 5 year old daughter explained that he couldn't hear him.  When the guy turned around Jason began signing with him.  (Jas became fluent in sign while he was dating a deaf girl in highschool).  Turns out the family is Canadian, they live in Toronto, only a few blocks from Jason's dad and step-mom live.  The rest of the family is hearing so we were able to communicate while we had a drink together.  His wife went to Queen's for teacher's college too!  The coinsidences got even stranger when it turns out they both know Jason's old girlfriend.  They used to all teach together at a deaf school in Toronto.  It felt pretty sureal being in the Outback in Australia talking/signing with a Canadian family withso many people and places in common.
One of the amazing things about 'the rock' is how it changes colour at different times of the day depending on how the sun is hitting it.  While at Uluru, it becomes important to see the rock in all its various moods and colours.  It is common to get up at 4:30 am to make sure you make it to the viewing spot for sunrise, likewise for sunset at 7:30 pm.  Unfortunately we did not get to see a sunrise, but it was not for lack of trying.  We set the alarm for 4:30am every morning but it was either raining or very overcast each time!  On the up side, we did get to see Uluru in the rain. 

Uluru in the rain and clouds
 This is apparently rather unusual as it doesn`t rain all that often in the outback.  We are some of the minority of visitors who have seen waterfalls at Uluru.  It was really rather special seeing the water cascading down the rock.  

Temporary waterfalls at Uluru

 A place that we had seen the morning before, in the dry weather, was a small pond (more like a big puddle) with lots of tadpoles, overnight it had turned into a rather large pond.  The change in the water level was shocking!  
This pond was a tadpol filled puddle the day before.

Hiking around the base of Uluru.

Map of base walk around Uluru: an ambitious 12 km

The rain eventually turned to a drizzle and then to just an overcast grey day.  It actually made for great hiking weather.  The kids did an amazing job walking the 12 km around the base of Uluru.  It took about 5 hours but we sang, learned some sign language, dodged mud puddles, jumped in mud puddles, took too many pictures and spotted birds. 
Unseasonably wet they said.....

Cascades and high water levels at Uluru.
Inside one of the many caves of Uluru.

Red rock of Uluru.

Mighty hikers of Uluru.

 By the last kilometre of the hike the sun came out, giving us yet another perspective of the rock.
Sunny Uluru.
Caves at Uluru

Then it was back to the cabin, and a few more hours at the pool! 

Way too early on our last morning at Ayers Rock we woke to try and see the sunrise over Uluru but once again it was very overcast so we went back to bed.  Later that morning, we packed up all our stuff and headed to the airport for our flight back to Sydney.  On they way we spotted this feral camel!
Camel in the scub at Ayers Rock

Once we returned to Sydney we rented another car and drove to the Blue Mountains.  More about the beautiful Blue mountains next blog.
Beautiful wooden bench

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A few days in Sydney, Australia

We flew to Sydney on Sat. Dec 10 after spending far too many hours cleaning our flat to ensure we got our 2700 dollar bond back.  The building managers are actually really great people but OMG did they have hawk eyes for detail when it comes to cleaning.  I thought I had a high standard of cleanliness, but I've met my match.  Things like water marks on the edge of the cupboard door frame had to be polished.  It was really over the top!  Jason was asked to clean the shower several times. I actually had to scrub the inside of the dishwasher!!  The cleaning marathon came after a late night of ‘intelligent’ packing.  Everything we own had to be sorted into four separate containers.  One suitcase each, for our trip to Sydney, the outback and the Blue Mountains.  Another container for wrapped Christmas presents (I have never been ready for Christmas by Dec. 9th before).  Another, different suitcase for snorkeling and beach stuff for the Sunshine Coast and Heron Island part of the trip.  A fourth container for stuff that we needed while living in Brisbane but not needed while on the road like completed school work, lunch boxes, uniforms, work clothes, souvenirs, etc.  It felt like a huge accomplishment to finally turn over our keys and head to the airport.  
We did not arrive in Sydney until 9pm.   It is an hour and a half flight and an hour time change.  There was also a noticeable temperature change.  Sydney is 1000km South (so away from the Equator) so it is a bit cooler here than the more northerly located Brisbane.  Our weather during our Sydney stay was actually quite cool and rainy – a bit of a disappointment.  We stayed in an area of Sydney called "Wooloomooloo".  I think I chose accommodations there just so I could have fun saying Wooloomooloo.

Wooloomooloo Bay (a block from our hotel)

The next day, we made the best of the intermittent rain and got out when the sun peeked out and dashed into a museum or cafe when it down poured.  Sydney itself is a great city for walking around.  It is on the water and there is a long walking path around the harbour and of course the Opera House. 
Picnic by the Sydney Opera House

Walking around Sydney, Australia
Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House and Sydney Bridge
Sydney's central business district
Huge open air swimming pool near Wooloomooloo Bay

 Sunday was Jason’s only day to site see with us (and the best weather day) so we walked around a lot. 

 Just when we thought the day had cleared and we would take the ferry to Manly Beach to meet up with Denis and Gabrielle and their kids (see earlier blog about the O’Carrolls – Western Ontario colleague and friend also on sabbatical in Aus.) it started to really pour.  We took shelter in the covered snack bar at the ferry terminal and had lunch. 
 Since a beach day was not going to happen we wandered some more and took time to watch a very talented street performer.  In fact Jason was selected to help out in the show by holding the 12 foot unicycle for the street performer to climb on.  When the performer asked for a 7 or 8 year old volunteer Zac got involved in the show too! 
Zac joins the show.
You can imagine his delight when he promised to pay him $5 for helping out.  He had Zac put on a safety helmet and glasses and sit on the ground. 
Zac with helmet and 'safety goggles'

Then he mounted a small unicycle and jumped over Zac.  Very funny and not too scary for me to witness. 

Then he had Zac throw up a juggling club to him once he had climbed up the 12 foot unicycle.
Street busker juggling fire, knife and club on 12 ft. unicycle.
 The street performer was clearly talented and had a very charming funny rapport with his audience.  We learned later that he is the 2011 World Champion Unicyclist and married to an Australian Actress.  By the end of the show he actually paid Zac $10 dollars!!  You should have seen the smile on Zac’s face.  He was so chuffed.  It really made his day, he kept talking about  it for hours. 
We made our way to Darling Harbour.  When Jason and I had the opportunity to visit Australia 9 years ago, one place that I remember well was Darling Harbour.   I had memories of Serenna playing in a sunken water feature when she was two years old.  It was a thrill to find it again and watch my two kids playing in it. 
Serenna and Zac in the water feature, Darling Harbour

 Darling Harbour is a wonderland for kids.  There is the Aquarium, the Australian Outback Experience, IMAX theatre, and more. 
An amazing all lego statue at the Aquarium.

amazing lego detail

Since it is the week before Christmas, the entire Darling Harbour is decorated for Christmas with HUGE blow up Santas (and in some cases Koala Clauses) all around the harbour.  We made a game of spotting them all.
Blow up Santa in Darling Harbour, Sydney

Koala Clause

There is also a nice play park for kids so when the sun came out we hung out there. 
Playing in Darling Harbour play park
 When it started to rain we went to the IMAX theatre and saw Puss In Boots (3D). 
When the show got out we had some dinner and then listened to some Christmas carols being performed by a lit up Christmas tree – all lights, no tree.
Lights only Christmas tree in Darling Harbour
Darling Harbour at twilight
taking a rest at Darling Harbour
The next two days were work days for Jason.  He was giving talks at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and working with Denis so he was up and gone early each day.  The kids and I had a slower start to the day as we had really packed it in the day before.  Zac is such a homebody.  He would have been content to play and read (and yes we are back to homeschooling this month) in the hotel room all day.  By noon we got out as hunger was motivating us.  It was intermittent rain once again so we decided to do the double decker “Hop On, Hop Off city tour bus”. 
Open air bus tour of Sydney

We got off at the Marine Museum as we wanted to check out the submarine, the battle ship, the 1600s gunner ship and the 1800s tall ship.  Being in the submarine was the highlight. 

Battle ship and submarine at Marine Museum

We got to look around tour inside this Submarine.

Being in the submarine was the highlight.  It is really compact in there.  The sleeping bunks were everywhere – in the narrow corridors, in the dining area, in the control rooms...  They all looked narrow and short!  There were also dials and valves everywhere. 
Penni-Sue climbing down into the submarine

This is where they launch the torpedoes from. We now know how to take down a battleship.
Zac in a confusing mass of dials and hardware inside the sub
Serenna entering a different section of the sub.

The coolest thing we learned on the 1600s ship was how to go to the bathroom.  Toilet details are always fascinating, especially if you are 7 years old.  To go to the Loo to do number two, you go to the front of the boat and lean your butt over the edge.  Once finished you’ll need a wipe, so grab that length of frayed rope and put it too use.  As a courtesy to your shipmates, do not forget to give the rope a rinse in the bucket of sea water placed nearby!
Zac learns about the cannons on the 1600s ship.

Lighthouse and Tallship at the Marine Museum.

By 5pm we were on a ferry on our way to meet up with Jason and have dinner at Gabrielle and Denis’s home.  The ferry ride gave us yet another angle to admire the Opera House from.
Opera House from the ferry.

Bizarre entrance to Luna Park (amusement park) in North Sydney.

Our ferry stop was at Luna Park, an amusement park.  We did not go in, but the entrance gate sure makes an impression.  We had a very nice dinner with them and the kids played and played!  Denis dropped us back at our hotel by bedtime. 
On our third day in Sydney, the kids and I made more use of our 24 hour bus ticket and went to the infamous Bondi Beach. 

We wore our suits but we did little more than splash in the waves.  The water was noticeably colder here than the Sunshine Coast.  It was beautiful and dramatic though with lots of wind and grey clouds with spurts of sunshine.  Bondi Beach is known for its surfing and we saw the surfers getting tossed about.
Serenna and Zac at Bondi Beach.

Surfer looking for some waves at Bondi Beach.

Before our tour bus ticket ran out we headed back to the city for some lunch and more site seeing. 
Serenna enjoys "Devil's Delight" chocolate pancakes for lunch.

Zac spent 2 of his 10 dollar earnings on a matchbox car and I bought Serenna a word search book.  Zac and Serenna have been enjoying that at every opportunity.  In fact it has made homework time at restaurants even less appealing when they could be doing a wordsearch instead!
We went back to our hotel in the late afternoon for a swim in the tiny indoor pool.  When Jason returned from work that evening we went out for a lovely dinner. 
The best way to homeschool.

Back at the hotel it was time to pack for our flight the next morning.  We are ULURU bound and looking forward to it.
cool tree in the botanic gardens